A Chinese scientist who is the one of the world’s leading experts on coronaviruses was ‘muzzled’ after unravelling the genetic composition of the new disease, which is crucial for developing diagnostic tests and vaccines. The revelation will fuel fresh concerns over China’s cover-up of the pandemic after it erupted in the city of Wuhan. Critics argue that Communist Party chiefs frustrated efforts to contain the outbreak before it exploded around the world.
At the centre of the new claims is Shi Zhengli, known as China’s ‘Bat Woman’ after years spent on difficult virus-hunting expeditions in dank caves that have led to a series of important scientific discoveries. The virologist was called back to her high security laboratory in Wuhan at the end of last year after a mysterious new respiratory condition in the city was identified as a novel coronavirus – and within three days she completed its gene sequencing.
Her team’s work, and several other breakthroughs in subsequent days, indicated the virus was linked to horseshoe bats found more than 1,000 miles away in Yunnan, a region of southern China.
Their findings showed it was similar to SARS, a respiratory disease that sparked an epidemic in 33 countries after emerging from China in 2002.
Gao Yu, a Chinese journalist freed last week after 76 days of lockdown in Wuhan, said he spoke to Shi during his incarceration and revealed: ‘We learned later her institute finished gene-sequencing and related tests as early as January 2 but was muzzled.’
China is clamping down on research into the origins of the coronavirus after officials demanded the right to inspect its scientific papers before they are made pubic.
Two websites for leading Chinese universities have allegedly recently published and then removed pages that discuss a new policy which requires academic papers about Covid-19 to undergo extra checks before they are published, according to The Guardian.
Both Fudan University and the China University of Geosciences (Wuhan) allegedly posted notices saying that research on the origins of the coronavirus will be subject to government checks.
It is unclear whether this is a new governmental policy in China.
The Mail on Sunday has learned that on that same day, Yanyi Wang, director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, sent an email to staff and key officials ordering them not to disclose information on the disease.
She warned, according to a leak on social media confirmed by activists and Hong Kong media, that ‘inappropriate and inaccurate information ‘was causing ‘general panic’ – thought to refer to eight whistle-blowing doctors whose warnings to local citizens had led to their arrest.
Wang said the National Health Commission ‘unequivocally requires that any tests, clinical data, test results, conclusions related to the epidemic shall not be posted on social media platforms, nor shall [it] be disclosed to any media outlets including government official media, nor shall [it] be disclosed to partner institutions.’
Eight days later, a team led by a professor in Shanghai who received samples from an infected patient, published a genome sequence on an open access platform. His laboratory was closed for ‘rectification’ two days later.
Shi is a specialist in emerging diseases and has earned global acclaim for work investigating links between bats and coronaviruses, aided by expeditions to collect samples and swabs in the fetid cave networks of southern China.
She was a key part of the team that traced SARS to horseshoe bats through civets, a cat-like creature often eaten in China. Bats have been linked with seven major epidemics over the past three decades.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology, based ten miles from the wildlife market blamed as the source of Covid-19, developed a £30million high-security laboratory after the SARS outbreak with French assistance. Daily Mail UK